Following their Interests 

Following their Interests 

Annie Regan

In a recent conversation with a schooling family, I was asked the usual question about how I know what to teach the kids, and I gave my usual answer along the lines of, ‘We just follow their interests and all the learning is covered as part of that’. 

While this is definitely true, I realised that the picture that they then have in their head is a far cry from what we actually do. 

I know my answer satisfies most people, it reassures them that I’m thinking about all the learning areas and tailoring them to my individual kids, and it lets them picture our home education as a more relaxed version of school – it fits with their idea of how education looks. 

I know for many people they assume that what we are doing is using Unit Studies – picking a topic that one of the kids is interested in and doing lessons based on that topic. For those who are comfortable with the idea of a more relaxed home education, they might picture excursions and games rather than bookwork, but I know most people think that I am creating lessons and opportunities based on that topic, and that we concentrate on that for a period of time, then move on to the next topic. 

Regardless of what people picture us doing, I’m aware that for new unschoolers it can be very confusing and misleading, and this idea of interest-based learning can get in the way of unschooling. ‘Following their interests’ is not the same as unit studies, project-based learning, or even interest- based learning. 

All of those are great ways to home educate (and are even used in some school settings), but they are not unschooling. 

So what does ‘following their interests’ look like for an unschooling family? 

It means that what each kid is interested in, at that moment, is what they are spending time on. 

As an adult, I am fascinated by a whole range of topics, and I move between them as I feel like it – the kids are the same. 

Sometimes they dive deep into something, read books and watch movies and google more information – for hours, days, weeks or months. Other times they look up something in passing while they are doing something else. 

They (and I) aren’t thinking ‘we need to learn more about this’. Instead, they read, watch, research, play or explore because it’s something that they enjoy, and the learning happens as they do it. There’s no pressure to learn more or to complete a level of understanding. Nor do they have to delve into the same things that their siblings are, or show me what they have learnt. They don’t ‘finish’ an interest and then move on to something else – they are inspired to learn about things that they are interested in; they learn by reading or watching or playing or talking, and along the way 

they pick up skills and knowledge about that topic and about many others. 

My role in all of this is as a facilitator. New unschoolers often want their kids to tell them what their interests are, so that they can start providing resources for their kids’ learning. But the kids don’t see it as topics that they are learning about and can’t always express what their interests are – it’s just their natural curiosity, personality, state of mind that leads them to want to do an activity or know more about something. 

Spending time with my kids every day, chatting with them, playing games, watching movies, reading books, answering questions, constantly provides me with clues about what they are thinking about at this point. If I see a book, toy, webpage, article, activity etc. that is related to something that I know they like, I buy it, show them, offer it to them. They may say ‘yes’ or it might not be what they are after right now. Sometimes things sit around for a while and get used later on, other times they get moved on without being used. 

At any given time there are literally dozens of interests that are being explored in our home – none are too trivial or more important than others. 

Whether it’s literature or numbers or space or animals or dance or gaming or engineering or Pokémon or history or crochet or drawing or trampolining or camping or movies– the list could go on all day. Any exploration of any topic leads to learning and understanding. 

Every day we find that we hear or see or read something that connects to something we already know – the learning just builds on itself constantly. Those connections can happen in really surprising ways – like hearing a song lyric that suddenly makes sense because of something we saw in a movie yesterday, which ties in to a Wikipedia article we read this morning – all seemingly unrelated yet adding together to build understanding and supporting the idea that no learning is trivial. 

Some of the interests are recognisable as topics or subjects or skills, some are more activity based, and some are less well defined – just things that they enjoy. I know what kind of movies each kid likes, what kinds of food and recipes they like to explore, what type of books might interest them. I know who is interested in Pokémon and who likes scary stories and who wants to take every opportunity to go for a hike – and I provide those resources and activities whenever I can.
At times they ask specifically for a resource or for help learning more about something – most of the time they just go about their day, doing things that they enjoy, and take advantage of resources when they notice them. They don’t think of it as learning about their interests – it’s just living their life. 

Some days are busy, doing lots of activities at home or in other places, making things, reading, talking, seeing friends – other days are spent on the couch watching Netflix. Whatever the day looks like, it always involves learning.

For new unschoolers, instead of worrying about what your child’s interests are and figuring out ways to make learning happen using those interests – just spend time with your child. Play games with them, suggest movies, say ‘yes’ to things that they ask to do. Take note of the requests and find ways to offer more of that. 

Kids will naturally play and learn based on things that appeal to them and that they enjoy – and as unschoolers that is really what we mean when we say we are following their interests. 

Otherways 171 (Feb 2022)